Tag Archives: David Lang

Giant pouched rats, baby corals & the FBI: A recap of TEDFellows Session 2 at TED2015

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In Session 2 of the TED Fellows talks, we learn about the FBI’s use of informants in counterterrorism operations, how giant pouched rats are helping to save lives, laser-delivered HIV drugs, how Silicon Valley companies are working to protect our privacy — and that’s not to mention the piano solo, percussive dance and opera!

Sri Lankan opera singer Tharanga Goonetilleke opens Session 2 with Magda’s aria from the opera La Rondine by Puccini, accompanied on piano by Tina Chang. “The character sings of true and passionate love that is better than all the riches of the world,” says Goonetilleke.

“The FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than any other terrorist organization” begins investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson. After 9/11, the FBI were instructed to find terrorists before they strike — and this pursuit of terror has consumed the agency to the tune of $3.3 billion a year. While there have been only a handful of successful domestic terror attacks, the FBI boasts that it’s foiled dozens of terrorism plots in their undercover sting operations, and have arrested more than 175 people in counterterrorism stings.  According to Aaronson, many of these are orchestrated by the FBI itself, who pay informants $100,000 or more to seek out and “inform” on often-impoverished and mentally ill Muslim-Americans. The FBI then provide the suspects with all they need to execute a terrorist plot — weapons, a martyrdom video, and money — which are then stopped, just in time, by the FBI. Until now,  Aaronson has drawn his startling conclusions from years of poring over domestic terrorism prosecution files. But in an article published this morning in Intercept,  Aaronson has revealed the transcript of a secret recording of FBI agents, proving they knew would-be terror suspect Sami Osmakac — who has schizoaffective disorder and was lured by an undercover FBI agent into plotting a bombing — was incapable of the crime. Osmakac was subsequently arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in prison, an unwitting victim of what Aaronson calls the theater of national security.

Meet David Lang’s hero John Dobson, the amateur astronomer who created the Dobsonian telescope and was a pioneer in the realm of amateur science who spent his life teaching people the joy of constructing their own telescopes. It’s been hard for other scientific disciplines to replicate amateur activity, says Lang. But now, low-cost, accessible tools like cheap sensors, the rise of open standards, and the ability for fellow enthusiasts to connect over the internet is creating what he calls the era of Connected Exploration. As the tools for science, conservation and innovation have gotten more accessible and powerful, communities in Borneo are using drones to monitor their forests; in Japan, makers and hackers built Geiger counters to monitor the impact of Fukushima in real time; DIY biologists are competing with each other to design engineered microbes. In this context, science and discovery is not about efficiency and convenience, but wonder and adventure. One thing is clear, says Lang,  ”When you give people the tools to ask questions, they will surprise you with what they ask and what they discover.”

Choreographer Camille A. Brown performs a passionate and percussive solo dance excerpted from BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, accompanied on piano by Scott Patterson. “This dance reveals the complexity of carving out a self-defined identity as a black female in urban American culture,” says Brown.

 To read the full recap, visit the TED Blog >>>

Let’s kickstart Science in America – David Lang


Science funding is broken. To fix it, we need to empower a new class of makers, citizen scientists and explorers

The troubling state of science funding in America goes by many names: sequestration, the profzi scheme, the postdocalypse. Because it can take extensive planning over years in academia to gain research funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, “nobody takes risks anymore,” writes one researcher in his “Goodbye Academia” letter. “Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.” The result? We are on the verge of losing a generation of scientists at the exact moment we need to embolden them. Biologist Michael Eisen sums up the effects of the funding crunch: “It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.”

It’s not all bad news for the thousands of science and conservation ideas that fall outside the traditional funding rubric. Fortunately, new citizen science models are emerging — along with a new class of philanthropic backers to fill the funding voids left by the NSF and the NIH. Our experience developing OpenROV (an open-source underwater robot) into one of the largest (by volume) underwater robot manufacturers in the world is illustrative of this shift.

Looking back at the sequence of events, it seems improbable that such a small amount of initial funding could have made such a large impact, but it makes perfect sense when you break down all the contributing factors. Two years ago, we weren’t even part of the oceanographic community. Our ideas and techniques were outside the playbook for experienced ocean engineers. And since we only had enough money to test the first thing, not the whole thing, we started by creating a prototype. Using TechShop equipment in San Francisco, we able to create several iterations of a low-cost underwater robot that was suitable for our purpose: exploring an underwater cave and looking for lost treasure. After sharing our designs online, we found a community of like-minded developers. Together we raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to do a first run of manufacturing.

This experience made us think: How can we make more microsponsorship opportunities available in science, exploration and conservation?

OpenExplorer was our response. Instead of providing seed funding, we’ve created a model that gives everyone a chance to sponsor new ideas, research and expeditions in science and engineering. One success: TED Fellow Asha de Vos‘s work on preventing the ship strike of blue whales in the Indian Ocean.

In a world paralyzed by apathy and inaction, this is a first step. Where will it lead? Let’s find out!

This piece was originally published in the http://ideas.ted.com/2014/12/03/lets-kickstart-science-in-america/


Maker Fellows storm the White House!


TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen

TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen

On June 18, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire – “a celebration of all things built-by-hand and designed-by-ingenuity” – and four TED Fellows were present to show President Obama the inspiring work they are doing. From left to right: Jose Gomez-Marquez, who is designing affordable medical device hardware; Jane Chen, who built a low-cost infant warmer for premature babies; David Lang, who is building a community of citizen ocean explorers using low-cost underwater robots; and Manu Prakash, who has invented a 50-cent paper microscope and a $5 chemistry set inspired by a music box. To find out more, watch Jane’s TED Talk, “A warm embrace that saves lives.” And David’s talk, “My underwater robot.”



Give me your fussy, your bored, your hard to buy for: the TED Fellows gift guide

Still hurting for gift ideas? Never fear. The inventive and iconoclastic TED Fellows are coming to the rescue with the recent fruit of their labors. These inspired and unusual items — from Chinese-inflected banjo music to a remote-controlled underwater vehicle — are sure to delight your loved ones. Just be gentle stuffing that all-terrain vehicle into the stocking, or Grandpa George into the mushroom burial suit.


The gift: The littleBits Synth Kit
Perfect for: Aspiring musicians and actual musicians
The latest ingenious offering from Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits electronic building block company lets you snap together a modular synthesizer from 12 pieces. The product of a three-way partnership among littleBits, comedian-musician-anthropologist Reggie Watts (watch his TED Talk) and famed synth maker KORG, the littleBits SynthKit can be mixed and matched with any other littleBits kits to create all manner of musical artworks and toys with sound.
Get itOrder it through the littleBits website ($159)


The gift: The Muslims Are Coming!
Perfect for
: The social-justice-minded comedy fiend
Comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad‘s hilarious documentary follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they tour Middle America on a mission to combat Islamophobia and convert it to Muslim love. Featuring Farsad, and co-produced by TED Fellow Andrew MendelsonTMAC also features public interventions like the “Ask a Muslim” booth and the game show “Name That Religion” — not to mention special appearances by comedy heavyweights Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow.
Get it: Order the DVD ($15), or purchase it via iTunes or Amazon ($9.99)



The gift: OpenROV Kit
Perfect for: Explorers, your resident Jacques Cousteau
David Lang and his friend Eric Stackpole wanted to explore an underwater limestone cave in California, but they didn’t have the remote-controlled robot that would make it possible. So they decided to build one — opening up the process for instructions and advice from the public. In the process, they not only invented the OpenROV, the world’s first affordable, open-source, remote-controlled underwater robot, but formed a thriving global community of underwater explorers.
Get itBuy the latest iteration of OpenROV ($849)


The gift: City of Refuge
Perfect for: Fans of pop, folk and bluegrass, and folks with eclectic ears
Singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, Chinese-speaking clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn weaves together disparate musical traditions and genres from the past and present to create an exuberant and soulful sound. Features My Morning Jacket’s Carl Bromel, the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, Turtle Island String Quartet’s Jeremy Kittell, atmospheric jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and Mongolian string band Hanggai.
Get itAvailable via Amazon ($14)

To read the full post, visit the TED Blog >>>


Ocean exploration for all: Fellows Friday with David Lang


David Lang wants to make investigating the mysteries of the ocean accessible to anyone curious and adventurous enough to dive deep. Here, the co-founder of OpenROV — a community of citizen ocean explorers and creators of low-cost underwater robots — recounts his blistering journey from office job to fledgling maker to inventor of a robot that could revolutionize ocean exploration, education and research. And, he tells us about his newly launched book, Zero to Maker, a how-to guide for makers everywhere.

You started out on the OpenROV adventure after you lost a desk job. How did you make the leap from that to creating open source underwater robots?

Just over two years ago, I was working for this startup, writing emails, basically. When it went under, I decided to move to San Francisco because I was dating a woman up here at the time. But I also really wanted to start making stuff. I had met a carpenter, and I thought, “You can’t take carpentry away from this guy. You can’t fire him from this. It’s a skill, and it’s real.” I wanted something like that in my life.

So my goal was simple: making things. I started taking these woodshop classes and welding, and then I got into 3D printing, laser cutting.

During that time I met my friend Eric Stackpole, who wanted to build this underwater robot so that he could explore the Hall City Cave, an underwater limestone cave in the mountains of Northern California, where we’d heard rumors of treasure. I was like ‘whoa, that is so cool! Let me just tag along.’ I helped him put up a website, OpenROV, where we explained that it was going to be an open-source underwater robot, and that we needed help building it – because we didn’t know what we were doing.

We started getting great feedback and contributions from people all over the world, and we still do. It’s in the DNA of our project — the fact that this is something we’re all building together.

Did you find treasure in the cave?

No. But actually, we went back there recently, with Men’s Journal and Range Rover, to film this commercial, with a film crew and everything. It’s like a three-minute documentary. It should be out soon. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

What sorts of people were sending you information?

It’s really diverse. Some are professional ocean engineers. But a lot of them are software developers or electrical engineers who just wanted to start dabbling in underwater robots. We have a group with diverse talents. And even brand-new makers, like me, have been making contributions.

Version 2.5 -- the latest iteration of OpenROV.

Version 2.5 — the latest iteration of OpenROV.

Why do you think people have been so enthusiastic about contributing to this idea? Do you think this represents a new consciousness of some kind?

It harks back to Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus, right? People don’t want to go home and watch TV anymore — they want to continue to use their brains and be engaged in things. I think everyone is attracted to the project not just because of the robot, but because of this sense of adventure. I think that the cave story is equally important to what we’re doing as the actual, physical robot is.

If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that two guys in their garage can build robots and go explore underwater caves. I mean, this is a different era of exploration, when anybody can do this stuff. It doesn’t take a research grant to go out and be curious, and have pretty amazing adventures. I think it’s really exciting for everyone to consider all the potential. It’s just flat-out cool!

So essentially, you took all the information people were offering, and then you went to a maker space and cobbled it together?

Yeah! We did our first hundred OpenROVs at a TechShop. Now we have this lab in Berkeley, California, where we’re making these robots. We have a test tank, tools, everything we need.

There’ve been underwater robots in the past, obviously. So why is OpenROV a breakthrough? Is it the low cost and total accessibility?

Yes, that’s the goal. We want to make a scientifically capable robot for less than a thousand dollars. We still have a lot of room for improvement and evolution, but the rate of improvement is now really impressive. The big innovation, though, is the community. It’s not just about one low-cost robot — it’s the fact that we have this growing community of citizen ocean explorers.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>